Elaine Feeney – As You Were

elaine feeney as you were
Elaine Feeney – As You Were

Sinéad Hynes is in hospital, her family believes it is nothing serious, maybe the property developer just worked too much. But she knows better and has kept it a secret for quite some time: the cancer is terminal and now it is too late for a treatment.  Suffering severely, she shares the ward with Margaret Rose who welcomes all her family daily and thus creates an almost intolerable fuss. There is also Jane who is often confused, but at times, she remembers, e.g. that she had known the mother of another patient who shares the ward. Strangers become intimate, enclosed in such a tight environment and thus, they necessarily take part of the others’ fate and get to know their secrets.

Elaine Feeney’s debut is like a theatre play: a limited place with a limited number of characters who cannot escape the narrowness of the situation they are in and who are forced into an involuntary community where they have to support each other and also, reluctantly, share intimate details of their lives. At times funny, at others very melancholy, and always showing characters exposed to this small world without any protection where also no sensitive politeness is required anymore.

What troubled me most was to which extent I could identify with Sinéad and her situation. Luckily, I have never been close to such extreme circumstances but I can completely understand why she keeps her secret from her family and prefers to consult Google and tell it to a magpie instead of seeking help and compassion from her beloved ones. As readers, we follow her thoughts and only get her point of view of the events in the ward which is limited and biased, of course, but also reveals the discrepancy between what we see and understand what really goes on behind the facade of a person.

The plot also touches a very serious topic in two very different ways: double standards and honesty. Sinéad is not really frank with her husband, they do have some topics they need to talk about and which they obviously have avoided for years. Yet, for her, it is difficult to believe that somebody could just love her unconditionally and whom she can tell anything. On the other hand, the Irish catholic church’s handling with pregnant unmarried women becomes a topic – and institution which calls itself caring and welcoming everybody unconditionally played a major role in the destruction of lives.

Surely, “As You Were” is not the light-hearted summer beach read, but a through-provoking insight in a character’s thinking and struggles which touched me deeply.

Juliet Escoria – Juliet the Maniac

juliet-escoria-juliet-the-maniac
Juliet Escoria – Juliet the Maniac

When Juliet finally comes to High School, she has high expectations. Since she is assigned to many honours classes, her talents sure will soon be seen by her teachers. However, instead of concentrating on her educational goals, Juliet is completely preoccupied with what others think of her, why she does not fit in and why she even lost the only friend she had in middle school. She struggles more and more and enters a spiral of drugs and self-harm until she, at last, cries for help and is brought to a hospital. With changing school, she hopes to find back to her old self, but the mental illness she has to recognize as a part of her personality, keeps her at the edge between life and death.

I have read several novels about teenagers developing mental illnesses and struggling to come back to something like a normal life. Thus, I was keen on reading Juliet Escoria’s novel which comes with high praise and was highly anticipated. Sadly, the protagonist didn’t really convince me and I hardly could relate with her and her fate.

The biggest problem for me was that throughout the novel I had the impression that the medicine to treat bipolar disorder or depression is somehow glorified and paralleled with “ordinary” drugs that are consumed by teenagers, such as alcohol, marihuana or any type of pills. Also the fact that having sex while being completely out of your mind was repeatedly portrayed as something you should go for left me a bit wondering. Since Juliet does not really seem to be willing to overcome her addictions or to find a way of living with her diagnosis and the side effects that come with it, I also did not find the novel helpful in any way.

Well, there were some entertaining parts in it, it was even funny at times. And surely it shows that absolutely anybody might end up with mental struggles and that you cannot really do something about it. The tone was adequate for a teenager, even though she often sounded a bit older than just the 14 she was at the beginning.

Binnie Kirshenbaum – Rabbits for Food

rabbits-for-food
Binnie Kirshenbaum – Rabbits for Food

Things have been getting worse for Bunny, given this name because her parents raised rabbits, and now, New Year’s Eve is approaching. Like every year, Bunny and her husband Albie will take part in the mandatory dinner with people they call their “friends” even though they don’t see them any other evening of the year due to obvious reasons. Albie would be fine to stay at home, but Bunny knows that even though she feels depressed, she needs to play along. But then, the worst case happens: she breaks down and finds herself in a psych ward.

The novel is divided into two parts: before and after, just like people who have a breakdown or have to live through a life-changing event, divide their life. For me personally, the two parts are so different that it is not easy to come to one conclusion in the end. I’d say: thumbs-up for the first half of the novel, but a strong trigger warning for the second.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressed and struggles with the smallest everyday actions, I found the beginning of the book often very funny since the author is a master of irony and a humour that I really liked. There are so many brilliant phrases, it was a great joy to read even though Bunny’s suffering is almost overwhelming. You slowly approach the climax, New Year’s Eve, and you know that something big is going to happen, thus the suspense becomes almost unbearable.

When Bunny is hospitalised, her welcome there still has some funny aspects, but only until the laughter gets stuck in your throat and Bunny’s life becomes utterly horrible. I have read several novels about psycho wards, “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Girl, interrupted”, which were not easy to support, but admittedly, more than once I was close to just stopping reading because I could hardly stand what the nurses and doctors there do to the patients. I hope that this is not reality – even though I fear that it might come much closer than anybody from the outside world would dream. No, what Bunny has to endure in hospital is not something nice and there is no need to embellish anything, but admittedly who could ever turn to such a place to find help?

Binnie Kirshenbaum surely is a remarkable and highly gifted writer, yet, this novel definitely should be accompanied by a warning.

Emily Koch – If I Die Before I Wake

emily-koch-if-i-die-before-iwake
Emily Koch – If I Die Before I Wake

When Alex wakes up in hospital, he finds himself locked-in in his body. His mind is absolutely clear, but he cannot communicate with his surroundings; neither can he move his body the least bit, nor can he show the doctors or his family that he is not in a coma. It takes some time for him to figure out what actually happened. Since he cannot ask, he has to rely on what his visitors share with him. First of all, his girlfriend Bea, but also his father and his sister. He obviously was climbing when he fell from the rock. Since is never wore a helmet, the impact left a serious damage to his brain. But slowly he comes to the conclusion that the different pieces of information he gathers while listening do not really fit together. There must be more about it.

Emily Koch surely has chosen a very special point of view for her novel. Giving a voice to a locked-in character is something you do not read that often. Yet, it made the story especially appealing since you as the reader were completely with Alex and had no chance of getting more information than the protagonist. Not all you learnt made sense, at times, you even suspected the girlfriend of having tried to murder him – just like Alex did. Thus, the choice the author has made is simply great and adds a special bit to the story.

It was an attempted murder, this becomes clear quite early in the novel, yet, it takes some time to really understand what was behind it all. The limited access to information really supports the suspense here. At some points I got a bit annoyed, wishing it all to advance a bit more quickly. However, imagining this as a real life event, there is nothing one could do to accelerate it, so even though I was curious to get to the solution, it was a good decision to delay it.

A risky point of view which I find quite innovative. The plot was solved convincingly and the author found a way out of the story that I absolutely liked.